Mostly renowned for their 1964 Top Five hit "Have I the Right," the Honeycombs in their hit-making years were pretty much a vehicle for producer Joe Meek and the songwriting-management team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. The group was originally formed in Hackney during November of 1963 by guitarist Martin Murray. His day job was managing a hair salon, and when he formed the band, he brought along his assistant, Anne Margot Lantree, who was nicknamed "Honey" and used that on-stage -- she played drums, a true rarity among female musicians in those days, and, with her good looks, was a double attention-getter. Her brother John Lantree joined on bass, and Alan Ward played lead guitar. And for a lead vocalist, they had Dennis D'Ell (born Denis Dalziel). Their original name was the Sheratons (some sources list it as the Sherabons) -- something Murray remembered seeing on the side of a van -- and they got a three-times weekly gig at a pub called the Mild May Tavern, on Balls Pond Road in London's East End.
Visually, the group was highlighted by Lantree's presence at the drums, her good looks topped by a then-fashionable beehive hairdo. Rhythm guitarist and leader Murray also added to the appealing eccentricity of the band's look with his bespectacled presence -- to see him on the cover of their albums, one would think he was the group's accountant, but what made the picture even better was that he was a great player in his own right. At that time, their music consisted entirely of R&B and rock & roll standards interspersed with instrumentals.
Sources differ as to whether it was Meek, Pye Records managing director Louis Benjamin, or the bandmembers who brought about the name change to the Honeycombs. But one consequence of the new name was to reinforce the attention paid to their most unusual visual asset, Honey Lantree at the drums. After an initial stall midway in the charts, the single was picked up by the renowned pirate station Radio Caroline, and "Have I the Right" reached number one in England (and also, subsequently, in Australia, South Africa, and Japan as well) and number four in America. With bee-sting guitar leads and D'Ell's wobbling vocals, which sounded like a Gene Pitney unable to hold notes, "Have I the Right" was a single that one either loved or hated, but couldn't forget. The relatively faceless group afforded Meek perhaps his fullest artistic expression in the studio; all the Honeycombs' singles and albums feature variable-speed vocals, ghostly organ, unpredictable runs, majestically thudding drums, and super-compressed sonics. A self-titled album, all but one of the songs written by Blaikley and Howard, followed in October of 1964, and in between the single and the LP's release there was a frantic ten months of international touring, television appearances, and shooting spots in jukebox movies, made more complicated when Murray broke his leg. And amid that flurry of work, the group managed a couple more minor American hits -- "Is It Because" and "I Can't Stop," the latter a killer little pop/rock number -- but their fortunes in their own country soon began to fade. "Is It Because" and their rendition of the Ray Davies-authored ballad "Something Better Beginning" barely made it into the Top 40, although the Honey Lantree-sung "That's the Way" reached number 12.
The Honeycombs' records all seemed to possess an almost manic emotional edge, even by the standards of the British Invasion. Between the outsized sound of the musicians and D'Ell's vocals, "Color Slide" and "Once You Know" seemed to embody the kind of passionate desperation that characterized many a teen crush, and each was a frantic, crisply metallic-sounding pop-symphony paean to romance as only the young seem to rush into and drown in it -- like Phil Spector in steel. The ballad "Without You It Is Night" treaded on Roy Orbison's quasi-operatic territory, while "That's the Way" -- offering Honey Lantree's singing -- gave a slightly more cheerful, upbeat outlook on romance. And all of it, with Meek's trademarked sound compression, hit the listener subliminally like a punch in the chest.
Was Joe Meek overrated or was he an underrated genius? I think he was a music lover with some different ideas to produce records.
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